09 January 2012

And Back Again...

The post holiday season feels incredibly different for me this year. Normally, I wrap up the winter break with a few days of reflection on the first half of the school year, and identify two or three things I want to change in order to improve classroom community or my instruction in some way. Finding myself without a classroom this year, I applied this process to my own home and family life. I feel ecstatic by the sense of renewal I gained by doing so, and found myself reflecting on the importance of sharing and teaching this practice to both our own kids, and our students. The ideas swirling through the maze of neurons in my headed needed an outlet, culminating in the following article that I wrote for an educational blog. I enjoyed writing this so much, I wanted to share it here as well. Happy New Year to each and every one. May it be a year filled with growth, love, and multitudes of joy!

The first week back to school following winter break provides us a time for welcoming back, revisiting classroom expectations, helping our students reintegrate into the daily schedule, and gradually easing back into sustained cognitive effort. Next week provides an excellent opportunity to model our own ongoing reflective practice for students. Like many teachers, I keep a journal at my desk that I write in frequently, sometimes during the day when I recognize the need to adapt or change a lesson, or an unexpected teachable moment arises, and most days after school. Before returning to school following winter break, I take time to read through my journal and reflect on aspects of our classroom that work well, parts of the day or content areas that need fine tuning (or even a major overhaul), and one area I want to explore with my students in the remainder of our year together.

When we open ourselves up to sharing these reflections, even briefly, we model the value of reflection and goal setting for students, and can utilize this opportunity to engage in shared reflective activities. Students truly enjoy seeing how much of our own thinking we put on paper, especially when it relates to making their daily experience at school better. Doing so models lifelong learning, and highlights the importance of reflecting on both progress and process in learning.

One year, I showed my fifth grade students my reflection journal, how full it was, and the questions I ask myself over winter break as I look through these notes. I shared with the class my realization that, once winter arrived, our transition from lunch recess to math felt chaotic, resulting in math lessons that flowed poorly, more students off task, fewer positive behavior recognition slips, and less fun for all of us. I projected on the board our class quiz, test and homework scores for math in November and December, and asked table groups to discuss any changes they noticed. This opportunity for group reflection, with direct, small group teacher support, provided purposeful practice with reflection. Students noticed trends, and talked openly about how chaos and disorganization affected their ability to learn. Each group shared one thing they noticed, and agreed as a class that a poor beginning to a lesson led to lower scores, and more importantly, less understanding of the lesson objectives.

We worked together to brainstorm ideas on changes our class could make to create a more positive and supportive transition. Each table group chose two possible changes to discuss, identifying how it would lead to a better transition, and sharing their thoughts with the class. Lastly, the class chose three possible changes to try (with teacher input), and voted on the one to implement first. Ultimately, our class decided on two changes, we moved Read Aloud to right after lunch, and students agreed to use the bathroom before the end of recess. Once we settled on a plan of action, we set a date for a brief class meeting to reflect on the success of that change one week later.

During that meeting, students shared out that they found it easier to listen and think during math, that more students completed their work and were able to move on to math games during centers, and that they understood the material better. One brave student shared the difficulties students faced in using the bathroom during recess, and I learned that students were often not allowed to use the restroom during that time. Through open reflection, and a willingness to hear and acknowledge negative aspects of process (in this case bathroom privileges during recess),my  students experienced the power of reflection in creating more positive outcomes in their learning and in their environment. As an extension activity, our class completed a shared persuasive writing activity, asking the administration to make changes to bathroom privileges for upper grade students during lunch recess. By the end of January, our transition to math had transformed to a quick, quiet, and smooth beginning that accommodated the needs of each community member.

January commonly signals a time of reflection for adults the world over. By sharing our own reflective practice with our students, and providing them a time to contemplate and share their own thoughts about what parts of the day or content areas are working, those that aren’t, and what changes would create a more positive learning experience for them, we empower our students to become accountable for their learning process and progress. Throughout the remainder of the year, we can extend this to specific content areas, individualized goal setting, and celebrations of progress. 

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